Posted: 08 December, 2008
The UK-led MoonLITE mission that will see penetrator darts embedded into the lunar surface has been given the go ahead by the government to enter into an in-depth ‘Phase-A’ study.
The MoonLITE (Moon Lightweight Interior and Telecom Experiment) mission aims to place a satellite in orbit around the Moon and deploy four penetrators that will deliver scientific instruments to below the lunar surface. Each penetrator will contain a drill, sensors, accelerometers, a seismometer and mass spectrometer and offers the potential to establish the first network of geophysical instruments to probe the interior structure of the Moon in greater detail than ever before achieved. The penetrators would also deliver information on the strength and frequency of moonquakes and the thickness of the crust and core. The mission might also determine whether organic material or water is present in the polar regions, which would be of central importance in the planning of future human missions to the Moon. The satellite orbiter would act as a telecommunications station between the surface network and the Earth, relaying information to the Earth during the penetrators' proposed one year life expectancy.
MoonLITE will deploy four penetrators across the surface of the Moon in order to establish a geophysical network to probe the lunar interior. Image: SSTL.
Dr Ian Crawford from the School of Earth Sciences at Birkbeck College is the Project Scientist for MoonLITE. Commenting on the government announcement made at the end of last week he says, “this is excellent news for the MoonLITE project, and the development of lunar science in the UK. It is especially pleasing that the government recognises the value of space missions of this kind for the advancement of knowledge, the development of new technologies, and the inspiration of young people to take an interest in science and engineering.”
Birkbeck scientists Dr Katherine Joy and Dr Vincent Tong are also involved in the MoonLITE project. “MoonLITE provides an excellent opportunity for the UK to become directly involved with the global effort to partake in the renewed exploration of the Moon,” says Joy.
The mission must now meet the demands of the Phase A study before any decision to proceed with building or launching the spacecraft will commence. The development schedule, mission costs, and any possible risks will be assessed by industry and academia to determine the feasibility of the project. In June, the mission scientists demonstrated the feasibility of impacting penetrators at over 1,000 kilometres per hour into sand, in a full-scale mock-up of the proposed lunar impacts (read our report here). The penetrators contained electronics similar to those that would fly on the proposed mission, which remained operational throughout and after impact. The team must now continue with similar testing as well as perform detailed computer simulations to further test the response of the penetrators and their payload to a variety of different impact scenarios.
Scientists have already demonstrated that penetrators containing sensitive electronics could survive an impact similar to that envisaged by the MoonLITE mission. Images: MSSL/UCL. Experiment conducted at the QinetiQ facility at Pendine. Click here for video.
In addition to Birkbeck College, the UK Penetrator Consortium, which will develop the penetrator technology, includes members from UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) and Department of Earth Sciences, Imperial College London, the Open University, Leicester University, Surrey University and QinetiQ Ltd. The consortium is coordinated by Professor Alan Smith at MSSL.